Judgement and Inspiration

Dies Irae – Day of Wrath – is the name of the greatest of all medieval Latin hymns, the Gregorian Chant of the Dead, part of the Requiem Mass. It is a powerful description of Judgment Day at the end of the world – a day of divine wrath and a day of mourning – and a prayer to Jesus for mercy. It was probably written by Friar Thomas of Celano (who died circa 1256), a Franciscan who knew St. Francis.

It’s terribly gloomy and perhaps reflects not only a harsh theology of God as avenger and judge but may also echo the severity and hardship of the times in which it was written. But it has been an extraordinary inspiration for several composers of classical as well as religious music. Requiems by Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Verdi include the forbidding words, but Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite and Saint Saens’ Organ Symphony No.3 also use the menacing tune of the chant. It appears in many of Rachmaninoff’s works, notably The Isle of the Dead and The Symphonic Dances, which I referred to in my most recent blog, and was almost his last composition.

Did it have a special significance for him, I wonder? Unfairly, he is often portrayed as a grave and pessimistic man.

I have just been listening to Liszt’s ‘Totentanz’ ( Dance of Death) in a new recording by Eldar Nebolsin who, although born in Uzbekistan, studied in Madrid and had his first triumph in Spain, in the international piano competition in Santander. He is a brilliant pianist and in this recording on the Naxos label, is partnered by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under its permanent conductor, Vasily Petrenko. In the notes to the recording Keith Anderson suggests Liszt was inspired to write the work by a fresco rather than by the words of the Requiem. (Thinking about his unusual marital arrangements, he would have been wise not to worry too much about the after life!).

But in thunderous tones he employs again the familiar tune. I bought the CD because it received a rave review – which is justified. The main works are Liszt’s two piano concertos in wonderful performances. They are by definition ‘performance’ pieces with opportunity for the soloist to display his or her technique, although musically I find all three works disappointing.

I am indebted to an American website simply called DIES IRAE for these background notes. The writer points out that the Polish classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki named his famed “Auschwitz Oratorio” Dies Irae. ” And so, composers continue to find inspiration in what otherwise might seem unpromising material . Is it the theme or is it the tune? Or both?